Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mesmerizing Vistas and an Intriguing Visit from Anna Thorvaldsdottir

Thursday night at the Miller Theatre, chamber ensemble Either/Or delivered a rapt, riveting performance of recent works by hauntingly individualistic Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir as part of Miller director Melissa Smey’s eclectically fascinating Composer Portrait series. To characterize Thorvaldsdottir’s work as stillness punctuated by agitation is overly reductionistic, but that’s part of the picture. Her austere, earth-toned vistas often evoke the work of both Gerard Grisey and Henryk Gorecki, but with an even more stripped-down focus. The ensemble opened the concert with a site-specific work, the American premiere of the new 2013 piece Into – Second Self with kettledrums to the right and rear of the audience as well as onstage with twin trombones, a smaller drum kit perched on the left balcony, horns in back. It was tremendous fun, in the best way a surround-sound piece can be, but grounded in Thorvaldsdottir’s signature juxtaposition of quiet and disquiet. Close harmonies from the trombones hovered and lingered, the drums’ simple rhythmic motives leaping from one unexpected corner to the next, sometimes abruptly, sometimes with a droll touch, sometimes menacingly.

One, from 2008, a duo piece for piano and percussionist, worked an Art of Noise spy movie minimalism, pianist David Shively alternating feverishly between the keyboard and the inside of the piano, long resonant tones giving way to a walk or two, harplike versus sustained timbres steady and then reaching a calmer plateau. In this story, the spy slips away.

Ro (“serenity” in both Icelandic and Chinese) seemed sarcastic early on as the strings and low winds bustled apprehensively before it reached a similarly calm plateau and remained there, lush and enveloping. Tactillity, for percussionist and harp, featured Zeena Parkins snapping menacing, spaciously placed low notes that anchored ambient washes from bowed crotales, developing to a pointillistic series of what seemed to be loops, stately and steadily rippling from Parkins’ custom-made electric harp. The concert concluded with the full twenty-piece chamber orchestra playing Hrim (Icelandic for the transformation of ice crystals, or, in British English, hoarfrost), from Thorvaldsdottir’s debut US collection, Rhizoma, from last year. It was the most animated piece on the program, swirls of glissandos from the reeds and gusts from the brass interchanging with an insistent, occasionally menacingly percussive drive that alternated jarringly with the calm atmospherics.

Following the intermission, conductor Richard Carrick led an enlightening Q&A with the composer. Trained as a cellist, she embraced composition fulltime when she realized that she “could not live without writing music.” As cellists tend to, she finds comfort in the lower registers, a trait that resonates throughout her work. Her compositions do not specifically depict nature but are influenced by it and its patterns. The process of composing for her involves a lot of pre-composition, “dreaming on the music,” as she put it. While she notates her scores, she only does so when a piece is ready to go. She doesn’t compose on an instrument: the music is all in her head until it hits the staves. There’s also an aleatoric component to her work, no surprise considering how much extended technique is required to play it. The Composer Portrait series at the Miller continues next February 22 at 8 PM with Ensemble Signal spotlighting the works of Roger Reynolds.

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December 9, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alex Cline and Large Ensemble Reinvent an Avant-Garde Favorite

Drummer Alex Cline‘s recent release of his 2011 large-ensemble concert reworking of Roscoe Mitchell’s 1969 cult classic improvisational suite For People in Sorrow begs the question, why bother? Maybe because the original left such a mark on Cline. For the concert, he assembled an all-star, mostly West Coast group: Oliver Lake on reeds, Vinny Golia on woodwinds, Dan Clucas on cornet and flute, Jeff Gauthier on violin, Maggie Parkins on cello, Zeena Parkins on harp, Myra Melford on piano and harmonium, G.E. Stinson on electric guitar, Mark Dresser on bass, Dwight Trible and Sister Dang Nghiem on vocals. This crew does it less as a theme and variations than a long, dynamically and sometimes radically shifting tone poem. Those expecting a close approximation of the original won’t find that here, although the ensemble’s commitment and attention to the overall mood is very similar. Much of the piece is up at youtube.

There’s a lot of pairing, conversations and outright duels here: bass and percussion,  piano and cornet, vocals and gongs, guitar and bongos, sax and bass drum and a whole lot more, Cline perhaps by necessity as bandleader being up to his elbows in most of the sparring. High/low contrasts maintain a sense of tension, agitated flutes or harp against nebulous, Braxton-esque washes of sound. Cline engages with the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from the whisperiest of temple bell tones, to Hendrixian guitar wails and bunker-buster gong hits. Vocals, other than Nghiem’s – who sings religious invocations in Vietnamese – are mostly wordless but no less vivid.

Fullscale solos here, other than a trio of absolutely frantic ones from Lake, are few and far between. Brief spotlights on harp, cello and harmonium are slashingly effective, and arguably the high points of the performance. The long, all-enveloping series of crescendos at the end prefigure Wadada Leo Smith‘s more rambunctious orchestral works.The hippie-dippie poem that serves as the intro – added for this performance – adds nothing. The cd (out from Cryptogramophone) also comes with a dvd of the concert whose sound quality impressively matches that of the cd.  What does it mean, that this turbulent Vietnam War-era reflection still resonates as strongly as it does? Is it testament to the universality of Mitchell’s vision, and this group’s sense of it…or that people are just as barbaric, yet just as much in need of a respite from that barbarity, as they’ve always been?

December 7, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Zeena Parkins’ The Adorables: Lively, Hypnotic and Creepy

How adorable is Zeena Parkins‘ album The Adorables? Not particularly. But it is very trippy, and often very creepy, and a lot of fun. In addition to her gig as Bjork’s harpist, Parkins has been a denizen of the downtown scene for a long time, beginning well before the Knitting Factory and then moving on to Tonic and the Stone. This album – with Shayna Dunkelman on vibes and percussion, Danny Blume on guitar, Deep Singh and Dave Sharma on percussion and Preshish Moments on electronics, sounds like a live recording from the Stone and is best appreciated as a whole.

A syncopated trip-hop beat with echoey Rhodes, skronky guitar and electronic blips and bleeps sets the scene, creepy and tinkling.  Parkins eventually emerges along with what sounds like a mellotron. Signaled by a jaunty percussion break, the ensemble rises to a hypnotically dreamy, twinkling groove. That’s the first number. The second builds along similar lines as textures grow more dense, Parkins’ insistent crashes against woozy synth; the third builds from sardonic vocals to a rattling interlude (is that a cimbalom?!?), to loopy anthemics.

An unease sets in at that point and pretty much never leaves, beginning with Parkins’ tritones conversing with weird, robotic effects (talking with a robot would make anyone uneasy, right?). From there the band takes it into whooshing Bernard Herrmann atmospherics, to skronk, and then back with a mechanical shuffle, Dunkelman’s distantly menacing vibes solo looming in from the great beyond. Parkins’ spiky, noir melody against the lingering resonance of the vibes and the jungle of effects is arguably the album’s high point.

From there, wry early 80s-style synth fuels a Halloweenish take on P-Funk in 6/8. Twinkles and booms rise to an uneasy, dancing doublespeed that eventually loops with a West African rhythm. And then it’s over. The album is out from Cryptogramophone; Parkins’ next New York gig is an especially intriguing one, on Dec 5 at 8 PM at the Miller Theatre, where she joins a chamber ensemble playing percussively hypnotic works by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir.

December 1, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment